Uranium workers may get more help
Downwinders, drillers and so-called post-‘71 uranium miners would be eligible for radiation-exposure compensation under changes to the 24-year-old law proposed in the Senate.
Senators from Colorado, Idaho and New Mexico are asking that the law, which has pumped more than $1.7 billion to former nuclear-industry workers, be expanded to cover more people and clear up contradictions in existing law.
Current law authorizes compensatory payments totaling $150,000 to miners, millers and others who suffer terminal diseases that have been linked to radiation exposure.
Smaller compensatory awards are available to certain “downwinders,” people who lived in areas in which fallout from nuclear testing was likely to occur.
“My mother is still alive and she sure could use” a compensatory award, said Jeff Green of Price, Utah, whose father, Tom, died in 2010 after suffering from a variety of illnesses, many of them believed connected to radiation exposure.
Tom Green, however, was never approved for compensatory payments because he worked as a core driller, which was not one of the occupations for which compensation is available under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.
“It’s irritating,” because if Tom Green had been a miner or truck driver, “he would have been one of the first ones” to get compensation, Jeff Green said.
Tom Green’s case is far from isolated, said Becky Rockwell of Canyon Consultants in Durango, who worked with him.
“I must have 30 core drillers” who worked in the nuclear industry and have died from or are suffering from lung cancer, Rockwell said.
“We must never forget the heavy price that thousands of Americans paid during the Cold War-era nuclear arms race,” said Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo. “During that time, many Coloradans and other Americans were exposed to radiation in uranium mines and nuclear-weapons facilities, and they have spent decades struggling with an array of health problems, including cancer. This bill will ensure those Coloradans and other Americans get the help they need and deserve.”
Udall is a sponsor of the measure, along with his cousin, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Republicans Jim Risch and Mike Crapo of Idaho.
The measure is similar to bills submitted in 2010 and 2011, said Keith Killian, a Grand Junction attorney who has worked with lawmakers on the legislation.
As nuclear energy appears to be re-emerging in Canada, Colorado and much of the rest of the West, Killian said it seems an appropriate time to make sure that standards are in place for the industry.
One of the major elements of S.773 would be to make miners and others who worked in the industry in 1971 and beyond eligible for benefits. Current law ends the eligibility period at 1971 because the U.S. government was the only buyer of uranium in the nation until then.
“It makes sense to the people who have been handling it in the United States since 1971,” Killian said.
Under current law, downwind areas stop at the Utah-Colorado state line. S.773 would include the entire states of Arizona, Colorado Nevada, New Mexico, Idaho, Montana and Utah for fallout from the Nevada Test Site; New Mexico for the Trinity Test Site; and Guam for the nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean.
It also would increase the cap on attorney fees in such cases from 2 percent to 10 percent of the awards.
Congress approved the payments in acknowledgement of the contributions of miners, millers and others to the nation’s Cold War effort.
In addition to expanding the number of people eligible for compensation, the measure would clear up some discrepancies, such as adding kidney diseases to the list of compensable diseases for miners. Millers and transporters are now covered for kidney disease, but miners are not.
Officials used the diseases suffered by the survivors of the atom bombs in Japan to determine which illnesses were linked to radiation exposure.